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Haitian Priorities Must Drive International Reconstruction Efforts

One year has passed since a magnitude 7.0 earthquake devastated the island nation of Haiti. Our hearts and thoughts remain with the Haitian people as we remember the tragedy that unfolded on that fateful day.

On this anniversary, we are provided with an opportunity to not only remember those who lost their lives, but to reaffirm the commitment of the United States and the international community to support Haitians as they struggle to combat the ongoing cholera epidemic, curb post-election turmoil, and rebuild their neighborhoods, livelihoods, and country following the devastation of January 12, 2010.

Immediately following the earthquake, the global community rallied together to provide one of the largest relief efforts in history. The outpouring of support from ordinary people was inspiring, and again proved that the greatest resource of the United States is the generosity of its people.

Here in the House of Representatives, my colleagues and I came together to pass a bill I authored, H.Res. 1021, by an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote of 411 to 1, expressing solidarity with the Haitian people, urging the cancellation of Haiti's remaining debt, and expressing support for the recovery and long-term reconstruction needs of the country.

Additionally, we provided expedited tax deductibility to encourage charitable contributions to humanitarian efforts, and extended and expanded trade preferences to help jumpstart Haiti's manufacturing industry and generate sorely needed jobs. We successfully pushed for the establishment of Temporary Protected Status for Haitian nationals, and passed a supplemental appropriations package providing billions of dollars in relief, recovery, and reconstruction funds for Haiti.

Today, we are provided with an opportunity to assess the progress that we have made, the extraordinary challenges that remain, and the areas in which improvement is greatly needed.

I traveled to Haiti immediately following the earthquake, and again in late November, and saw firsthand the real improvements that had been made. The cholera outbreak -- an ongoing and devastating setback -- revealed the ramped up capacity of Haiti's national laboratory. The lab, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was able to identify the cholera strain very rapidly, improving our ability to respond to the outbreak -- a feat that would not have been possible just a year earlier.

However, significant improvements in recovery and reconstruction remain desperately needed. The relief effort -- which even with its many flaws was enormous and unprecedented -- has given way to a sluggish (at best) reconstruction effort. For example, of the 10 million cubic meters of rubble the United Nations (UN) Development Program estimates was on the ground on January 13, 2010, only approximately one-fifth has been removed. Even more alarming, of the 1.3 million Haitians forced into spontaneous and organized settlements, approximately one million remain in camps. Part of this snail-like pace involves the sheer magnitude of the problems Haiti faces, while part of it involves Haiti's legal and bureaucratic hurdles - including the lack of an adequate land tenure policy. Without a doubt, however, part of the blame rests with the lack of urgency on the part of the international community.

At the international donors conference, "Towards a New Future for Haiti," held in New York last March, 59 donors pledged approximately $6.2 billion over three years to support the Government of Haiti's Action Plan for National Recovery and Development. According to a recent study by the UN Office of the Special Envoy for Haiti -- for recovery and reconstruction assistance, specifically -- only 42 percent of pledged funds for 2010 has been disbursed to date. This is unacceptable. If we are to break the cycle of disaster-emergency relief-disaster, in which Haiti has been trapped for many years, we must act with the same sense of urgency in regards to reconstruction that we did immediately following the quake.

In addition to delivering on our promises, we must ensure that those promises are in line with the will of the Haitian people. The international community, rightfully, recognized early on that if our efforts were to be sustainable, they had to reflect the priorities of the Government of Haiti. The establishment of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC) was a very good idea in this regards; and moving forward, we must ensure that it is inclusive, transparent, and adequately resourced.

Additionally, we must significantly improve and scale-up communications and participatory mechanisms to more substantially involve Haitian civil society. The United States and UN are sponsoring outreach for civil society organizations; however, many Haitians still hold the perception that recovery efforts are dominated by foreign actors who have unintentionally or willfully excluded them. Unless civil society is involved at every major stage of the post-earthquake and cholera responses, this perception will continue, and will prove detrimental to our long-term efforts. Promoting country ownership is not merely a symbolic gesture, but concretely improves reconstruction projects and lays the groundwork for long-term development by building local expertise.

In this vein, we must give special priority to programs that protect vulnerable populations -- including internally displaced persons, children, women and girls, and persons with disabilities. Ensuring these populations are significantly involved in the recovery efforts reinforces their protection. The UN Secretary General, for example, has specifically stated that women should be involved in security decisions that affect their daily lives as a means of combating the alarming upswing in the incidence of gender-based violence since the earthquake.

Lastly, we must continue to support the Haitian Ministry of Public Health to prevent the spread of cholera, treat those affected with the disease, and build up health systems to reduce the disturbingly high case fatality rate. In addition, we must ensure that the international community is planning for the long-term presence of the disease in Haiti, which, according to the Pan American Health Organization, is now endemic, and provide the necessary resources to ensure that this planning is thorough and complete. As we have learned from other experiences with cholera in the Western Hemisphere, building adequate water and sanitation infrastructure is not only a surefire way to combat cholera in the long run, it significantly reduces infant and child mortality across the board.

Throughout this unceasing series of tragedies and crises, Haitians have continued to demonstrate unwavering resilience, dignity, and courage. After this anniversary passes, and Haiti again falls off the 24-hour news cycle, let us not forget the plights of our neighbors just off our shores. Let us deliver on the promises that we have made, and let us continue to rebuild with the Haitian people, the Haitian Diaspora, and all international actors that share in the goal of a brighter future for Haiti. Men anpil, chay pa lou.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee yesterday introduced House Resolution 35, recognizing the anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, honoring those who lost their lives, and expressing continued solidarity with the Haitian people.